Intellectual Desegregation: What Heterodox Thought Requires from Academics

A few years ago, Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist, realized that most of his colleagues were on the Left. This is not necessarily a bad thing. People are allowed to have differing political views. It is also wrong to judge the quality of scientific research on political beliefs.

However, the uniformity of opinion presents institutional challenges. The academy is a church of skeptics. Progress is made when people are allowed to disagree. In the humanities and social sciences, a dominant mainstream may prevent questions that will deepen inquiry and identify errors and biases.

The solution, for Haidt, is not a new orthodoxy. One does not improve the academy by forming a conservative orthodoxy to balance a liberal blockade. As they say on the schoolyard, “two wrongs don’t make a right.” Instead, one needs a new academic mindset, one that makes it possible to move beyond conformity and groupthink. Haidt called this mindset “heterodoxy.” In this essay, I will argue for a habit of mind that heterodoxy should include: intellectual desegregation.

The very first step toward a genuinely heterodox mindset is intellectual desegregation. In other words, most academics find themselves in relative “safe spaces” where they encounter people like themselves.

There is an old joke about Richard Nixon that makes this point. A professor in a very liberal enclave, such as Cambridge, says, “I don’t understand how Nixon could have won—none of my friends voted for him!” Many professors and educators live similar lives. They live politically homogeneous lives. I don’t merely refer to the neighborhoods in which they reside. I also mean their intellectual lives.

For example, Inside Higher Education ran an article by a sociologist who critiqued conservatives. I was very curious to read the essay, but I shook my head as I read it. In the essay, the author accused conservatives of not having any ideas beyond demeaning women and people of color:

A third premise that should be strongly questioned is the very idea that conservative thought is diverse. What is diverse about a body of thought reliably in support of a reactionary status quo?

That statement shocked me. How would someone feel if he had written that men or women have the same ideas or that all people of an ethnic group lacked diverse thoughts? I doubt that this essay would have been written had the author spent time deeply reading classic texts of an opposing political tradition.

The underlying issue, I think, is that it is easy for intellectuals to segregate themselves.

There is so much to read and so much to do. It is very easy to say, “those folks are nuts, best not to bother.” Given a stack of papers to grade and piles of journals to read, what is to be gained by engaging with people who are so clearly wrong?

This question has many answers. Like we tell our students, we don’t know our own arguments until we encounter our sharpest critics. But there are also other reasons to pursue intellectual desegregation. Sometimes the other side is right. A critic may identify a genuine problem in your theory.

There is also a social benefit. If society sees the academy as a disconnected enclave, they will lose faith in our mission. If we show genuine engagement with ideas, even those we find repulsive or deeply in error, people will increase their support for the institution.

I’ve approached the problem of intellectual segregation from a lofty theoretical position. What would it mean for a professor’s daily life?

To start, we should drop the caricatures of the other side. For example, there is now a cottage industry of academics who are trying to prove that various conservative and libertarian scholars are all secretly racists who tried to reinstate segregation. The most infamous case is the book Democracy in Chains. Written by Nancy MacLean, the book argued that public choice economist James Buchanan inspired anti-black movements—even though his writings barely mention race and he supported the work of anti-apartheid academics. There is plenty to debate about Buchanan’s work, but the book’s positive reception among academic historians indicates that caricatures win the day. The first step toward intellectual desegregation is quality control—academics of all stripes need to stop relying on inaccurate smears of the other side.

Second, scholars should strive toward a new self-identity that strives for dialogue and engagement rather than conflict. Currently, the US is experiencing extreme political polarization, which means that people sort themselves into rival political camps. On campus, this means that many professors strongly self-identify with one political party or tradition. In doing so, they mitigate another identity—the disinterested scholar who seeks knowledge regardless of its source and follows data wherever it may lead, even if it contradicts our values.

Intellectual desegregation entails a balance of these two identities—the partisan and the disinterested scholar. We don’t want partisan identities to undermine our research, nor would we want to pursue research without considering our values. Once we modify our self-perception and move from a highly partisan view of scholarship to a more balanced one, then we open ourselves up to genuine conversations with writers who hold radically different views. This approach to academic life is not to surrender to the other side. It is a sign of maturity and enlightenment.

It is important to keep in mind that heterodoxy means discomfort. By dismissing caricatures and having meaningful engagement with people who disagree, we will need to accustom ourselves with some very painful feelings.

I am an advocate of free migration, so that means I need to speak to people who don’t feel the urgency that I do. A conservative must learn to listen to the critical race scholars who list the worst moments in our culture. The socialist professor must really sit still as they listen to the historian who documents the sins of the Iron Curtain. If we can do that, we’ll build a better academy and a better culture.

Fabio Rojas is a professor of sociology at Indiana University, Bloomington and is the co-editor of Contexts: Understanding People in Their Social Worlds.